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The Worst Travel Nightmares of 2019

This year has seen its fair share of travel nightmares—from stranded passengers in scary situations to wild weather causing major disruptions. Here's the worst of the bunch.

Man with shoulder bag and hand luggage walking in airport terminalKaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

When traveling goes very wrong

Billions of people travel every year without a problem. In fact, there are an average of 1.4 billion international arrivals annually, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Sure, some travelers experience bumps in the road (or sea or sky) on the way to their destinations, but it’s usually a minor occurrence, even when it feels major at the time. But then there are the headline-making travel nightmares that make you wonder if you ever want to leave your house again. Thankfully, those incidents are rare…but that doesn’t make them any less aggravating, concerning, or downright terrifying. Here’s what happened in 2019—and take a look forward at how travel will change in 2020.

A digital board shows flight cancellations at Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, USA, 30 January 2019. At Chicago airports, more than 1,700 flights were cancelled on Wednesday, according to the city's Aviation Department due to coldspell polar vortex in US Midwest. 30 Jan 2019KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A polar vortex froze flights

Chicago can handle the cold like a boss, but when it sees temperatures as cold as they are on Mars, even the Windy City can’t deal. In January, temperatures dropped well below zero, causing thousands of flights to be canceled and delaying thousands more as passengers were stranded in airports around the country for days at a time, according to USA Today.

wow airMauritz Antin/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Wow Airlines stopped operating

Suddenly and without warning, Wow Air ceased operations in March, canceling flights and leaving passengers stranded. The budget Icelandic airline said that some people were entitled to compensation, but in the meantime, passengers gathered in airports waiting for their flights—some of which were canceled just 20 minutes before their scheduled boarding. The no-frills Wow Air was founded in 2011, and it became popular due to its relatively inexpensive fares from Iceland across the Atlantic. Find out more about what happens (and what passengers can do) when an airline shuts down.

germania airSASCHA STEINBACH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A number of other airlines shuttered as well

It’s been a rough year in the sky. First, we lost Wow Air. Next, we said goodbye to Germania, the European airline that couldn’t keep up with the price of fuel. Flybmi, based in the United Kingdom, soon followed. In February, the Dutch Caribbean–based Insel Air declared bankruptcy, followed by Saratov Airlines, which couldn’t survive its reputation after a flight crashed and killed 71 people last February. Finally, California Pacific (an American regional airline that struggled with its certifications, fleets, and routes in addition to other logistical issues) perished, though it has promised to return. Fingers crossed. Learn some more of the worst (and best!) news for air travelers in 2019.

thomas cook travel nightmareGeoff Robinson/Shutterstock

Thomas Cook’s sudden departure

Thousands were stranded in airports around the world in September after one of the oldest tour companies announced that it was shuttering. A whopping 150,000 travelers needed to find alternate plans when Thomas Cook said that all of its flights and bookings were canceled—effective immediately. Thankfully, nearly everyone was refunded for their travel. If you prefer booking your own trips, make sure you know these secrets to traveling cheap, according to travel agents.

viking sky cruise ship travel nightmareSVEIN OVE EKORNESVAG/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A Viking cruise stranded passengers in rough seas

In March, a Viking Sky cruise ship suffered an engine failure due to low oil levels off the coast of Norway, and more than 1,300 people were stranded in very rough seas. Passengers were posting traumatic videos on social media showing overturned tables, furniture sliding, and other scary scenes. Dozens were injured, and hundreds needed to be helicoptered off the ship. Of course, cruise problems, like flight problems, are rare. If sailing the seas is in your future travel plans, here’s what travel experts say you should know about booking a cruise.

Thousands of protesters occupy Hong Kong International Airport to raise awareness at their concerns over possible extradition to China and overzealous police tactics deployed by local law enforcement. On August 11, tactics used by police caused a nurse to permanently lose vision in her right eye right eye while protesting at Tsim Sha Tsui. 13 Aug 2019Kevin On Man Lee/Penta Press/Shutterstock

Protests in Hong Kong affected travel

Spring and summer travel news was largely dominated by the situation in Hong Kong, as police there fired tear gas and non-lethal ammunition at protesters who were distraught over the suspected revocation of their freedom by the Chinese government. Protests throughout Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway, and the Airport Express disrupted transportation into Hong Kong, according to Cruise Critic. Of course, tourism numbers have dropped dramatically as a result, and the situation is ongoing.

dominican republic travel nightmaresjvphoto.ca/Shutterstock

Mysterious deaths in the Dominican Republic

Tourism in the Dominican Republic took a sharp dip this year after 11 Americans died between June 2018 and May 2019 for no apparent reason in resorts there. Some believe that tainted alcohol was responsible, but that theory has not been confirmed. That said, shortly after drinking from their minibars, many of the guests at varying hotels became sick or had heart attacks and never woke. This situation was declared a “tourism crisis,” although the United States maintained a level-two advisory to the DR. The FBI conducted toxicology tests but didn’t release the results, so the causes of the deaths are still under investigation.

amazon rainforest fire burns in brazilLeo Correa/AP/Shutterstock

The Amazon rainforest burned in Brazil

Thousands of fires were set in Brazil’s rainforest in August to clear the land in a controversial move that many declared an environmental disaster. Airports were closed and clogged, and the Brazilian government declared it an emergency situation. People were told to live indoors while the forests—which are essential to soaking up carbon dioxide, helping with climate change—burned to the ground. The majority of the fires were started by ranch owners who wanted more land for their cattle to graze. Here’s what could happen if the entire Amazon rainforest disappears.

While awful on a variety of levels, this also directly affected travel to Brazil and the surrounding areas. It kept tourists away, since they were unable to visit due to the environmental hazards, though Brazil’s Tourism Board doesn’t have official travel-cancellation figures. This came at a time when Brazil’s government had been urging visitors to travel there, even waiving visa requirements starting in June. This was part of a planned government initiative to increase the South American nation’s visitor numbers. Brazil hosted 6.6 million visitors in 2018, and they had hoped to bring in 12 million by 2022.

tiger sharks in bahamas, Jordan Lindsay travel nightmareSeaTops / imageBROKER/Shutterstock

Shark attacks in the Bahamas

The Bahamas aren’t having a good year. For starters, there were two shark attacks, one of which was fatal. Jordan Lindsay, a 21-year-old visiting from Los Angeles, was snorkeling in the Bahamas when she was attacked by a group of tiger sharks in June. Earlier, an American man was bitten by a shark, but he survived. While shark attacks in the Bahamas aren’t common, scientists believe that increases in wind speed and sea-breeze activity may be playing a role in bringing more marine life closer to the shore. While news about sharks can be scary and sensationalized, make sure you know the facts about shark attacks.

hurricane dorian bahamasRamon Espinosa/AP/Shutterstock

Hurricane Dorian decimated the Bahamas

The Bahamas were torn apart after Hurricane Dorian arrived in late August, creating a travel disaster. It was the most intense tropical cyclone ever to hit the islands, and it was recorded as one of the most powerful hurricanes in the Atlantic in terms of 60-second sustained winds, which peaked at 185 mph. As a result, nearly 3,000 flights in and out of the United States were canceled, and several airports in Florida were closed. The relentless hurricane struck islands throughout the Bahamas and caused catastrophic damage, flattening most of the structures and leaving more than 70,000 people homeless. While some areas of the Bahamas are still functioning for tourists, the majority will need to be rebuilt.

airbnb scam travel nightmares 2019BigTunaOnline/Shutterstock

Airbnb hosts scammed travelers

Airbnb has dominated the lodging industry for the past few years, but it hit a hurdle in November after a scathing article published in Vice described a scam affecting hundreds of listings—that was largely ignored by the company. “It seemed as if one person or group might have created numerous phony accounts to run a much larger Airbnb operation,” wrote Allie Conti in her article. What happened, exactly? She had booked a nice home via Airbnb, only for her hosts to re-route her to an unsavory spot, blaming an apparent plumbing issue. Her money was not refunded. Turns out, the same “hosts” were running this scam throughout the world. While Airbnb didn’t respond to her requests for comment or to her article, the FBI did—and investigated the situation. Later, Airbnb agreed to verify all of its 7 million listings. While scams like this can be hard to identify ahead of time, watching out for these signs you’re about to fall for a bad Airbnb listing can help you avoid getting scammed.

united airlines travel nightmare 2019travelview/Shutterstock

United passengers were stranded in freezing temperatures

In January, passengers aboard a United flight from New Jersey to Hong Kong were stranded on the ground for more than 15 hours. The flight had been diverted to Canada due to a medical emergency, and when the flight went to take off again, it experienced unexplained mechanical problems. Officials said they couldn’t take the passengers off the plane because there were no customs officers on duty, as it was the middle of the night. The weather was negative 20, and the plane’s door was broken, so it was freezing inside—and the flight was running low on food. Finally, after 15 hours, the passengers returned to New Jersey and were rebooked. A small silver lining: They received a full refund and travel credit.

Follow me beach couple man holding girlfriend hand following woman to the swimming pool blue ocean vacation in Bora Bora, Tahiti ,French Polynesia.Maridav/Shutterstock

Influencers faced backlash

Influencers have been taking over Instagram with their travel stories, but they’re feeling backlash in a big way this year. After a Czech couple traveling through Bali splashed themselves with holy water from a temple (and ‘grammed it, of course) and a beach-club owner in the Philippines complained about “freeloaders” who were ruining his establishment, the battle between influencers and the so-called influenced (the rest of us) has been brewing: Are they good for travel, or are they a big travel sham? The jury is still out. But one thing is certain: Destinations are becoming more discerning (and arguably more cynical) when doling out freebies, discounts, and other assorted perks. Some travel nightmares are out of people’s control—and then there are the worst tourists of 2019, who caused some serious headaches for themselves and others.

Danielle Braff
Danielle Braff regularly covers travel, health and lifestyle for Reader's Digest. Her articles have also been published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe and other publications. She has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and a master's degree in musicology from Oxford University in England. Danielle is based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two children. See her recent articles at www.Daniellebraff.com. You can follow her on Facebook @Danielle.Karpinos, Twitter @daniellebraff, and Instagram at danikarp.